I was sure I was going to like Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder by Caroline Fraser (published 2017). Prairie Fires has received widespread critical acclaim and has been awarded this year's Pulitzer Prize for Biography. It can be daunting to give one's views on such a book but I have to be honest and say I struggled to get through Prairie Fires and the question is why?
I'm a fan of the Little House TV series so you would think I would be an ideal candidate for this biography. But though I am a fan of the TV show, I have never gotten around to reading any of Ms. Wilder's classic Little House children's novels. I think that matters. It would be like reading a biography of Charlotte Bronte without having read Jane Eyre. You should always read the author's work before tackling a biography about the author.
That said, for me the most interesting part of Prairie Fires takes place in the first third of the book as Charles, Caroline and their children try to make a living on the Great Plains during the 1870's. The second and third parts of Prairie Fires revolve around Laura and her husband Almanzo Wilder's life in Mansfield Missouri. We don't hear much about Laura's parents and sisters again. Instead the story shifts to Mansfield, MO where Laura and Almanzo who arrived there as newlyweds would spend the rest of their lives.
Almanzo Wilder was a private man and Laura though more outgoing was also rather private. She became an important member of her small town community in Mansfield, writing a column for the local newspaper, and she had a job for many years processing loan applications for her neighbors. Laura was an active member of social get togethers in her town but until she started jotting her childhood memories down in her later years her life was not the stuff of biography. Her daughter Rose Wilder Lane is another story however and the deeper one gets into Prairie Fires the more Rose's life begins to take over the book. Caroline Fraser to put it bluntly cannot stand Rose and though Rose was a hard person to like I couldn't help wonder are we getting the full story when you factor in Ms. Fraser's distaste.
One may also ask in a biography about Laura Ingalls Wilder why is Rose taking up so much space? But then again, how could it be otherwise? Laura and Rose as the author tells us had a loving but complex relationship. Rose Wilder Lane was a talented writer and journalist who during her life had articles and short stories regularly published in the newspapers and major magazines of the day. A few of her short stories were nominated for O'Henry awards. Rose would return to her mother's home in Mansfield MO during the Great Depression and begin helping her mother turn the drafts of her Little House books into publishable products. But the question will always remain did the substantial editing Rose did on the Little House books cross the line into rewriting? Prairie Fires makes the case that it may have and if so co-authorship for Rose Wilder Lane on the Little House books was warranted even though Rose never requested it.
So, should you read Prairie Fires? I think if you have read and loved the Little House books you should. There will be much to suprise as Caroline Fraser separates fact from fiction regarding what life was really like on the prairie of the 1870's. The real Ingalls family as opposed to their fictional counterparts had a much tougher road filled with hardship and peril that the books and the TV series have tended to gloss over. But fans will be pleased to know that the books, the TV series and the biography are all in agreement on one thing, Charles and Caroline Ingalls were remarkable people who struggled to keep food on the table for their children against all odds while providing fun times as well. All her life, Laura Ingalls Wilder loved and idolized her parents and she was right to do so.